Human Rights,  Islamism

Letter to Obama on support for Middle East democracy

The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy has sponsored a letter to President Obama asking him to support human rights and democracy in the Middle East– even in “friendly” countries– in a way President Bush promised to do, but didn’t.

Improving relations between the United States and Middle Eastern nations is not simply a matter of changing some policies here and there. For too long, U.S. policy toward the Middle East has been fundamentally misguided. The United States, for half a century, has frequently supported repressive regimes that routinely violate human rights, and that torture and imprison those who dare criticize them and prevent their citizens from participation in peaceful civic and political activities. U.S. support for Arab autocrats was supposed to serve U.S. national interests and regional stability. In reality, it produced a region increasingly tormented by rampant corruption, extremism, and instability.

In his second inaugural address, President Bush pledged that the United States would no longer support tyrants and would stand with those activists and reformers fighting for democratic change. The Bush administration, however, quickly turned its back on Middle East democracy after Islamist parties performed well in elections throughout the region. This not only hurt the credibility of the United States, dismayed democrats and emboldened extremists in the region, but also sent a powerful message to autocrats that they could reassert their power and crush the opposition with impunity.

This part may be hard for some to swallow, but I think it’s mostly correct:

For too long, American policy in the Middle East has been paralyzed by fear of Islamist parties coming to power. Some of these fears are both legitimate and understandable; many Islamists advocate illiberal policies. They need to do more to demonstrate their commitment to the rights of women and religious minorities, and their willingness to tolerate dissent. However, most mainstream Islamist groups in the region are nonviolent and respect the democratic process.

In many countries, including Turkey, Indonesia, and Morocco, the right to participate in reasonably credible and open elections has moderated Islamist parties and enhanced their commitment to democratic norms. We may not agree with what they have to say, but if we wish to both preach and practice democracy, it is simply impossible to exclude the largest opposition groups in the region from the democratic process. At the same time, to reduce the future of the region to a contest between Islamists and authoritarian regimes would be a mistake. Promoting democratic openings in the region will give liberal and secular parties a chance to establish themselves and communicate their ideas to the populace after decades of repression which left them weak and marginalized. [My emphasis.] More competition between parties of diverse ideological backgrounds would be healthy for political development in the region.

Are most “mainstream” Islamist groups in the region nonviolent and respectful of the democratic process? I don’t know. But trying to exclude them from participating in elections will never work in the long term.

A similar case was made by none other than Senator John McCain a few years ago.

“The security of New York or Madrid or Munich depends in part on the degree of freedom in Riyadh or Baghdad or Cairo,” he declared. And, therefore, we can no longer afford the view that “a despotic ally [is] preferable to an unfriendly democracy,” he said.

You can read the entire letter and see who signed it here.